‘Apostolic Succession’ – What is it and How Did it Develop?
For 1500 years, until the 16th century Reformation, ‘apostolic succession’ in varying degrees was the unquestioned norm, both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Protestants tend to throw it out as yet more papist baggage – without necessarily having understood what it means.
On closer examination, there were three definite stages of development in the concept of Apostolic Succession.
One bishop succeeding another in the same bishopric meant that there was a continuity of teaching. The Church as a whole was the vessel into which the truth is poured, and bishops were the conduit for this purpose.
This position was formulated in the early 2nd century as a response to Gnostic claims of having received secret teaching from Christ or the apostles. It emphasised the public manner in which the apostles had passed on authentic teaching to those whom they entrusted with the care of the churches they founded, and that these in turn had passed it on to their successors: What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also [2 Tim.2:2]. Ignatius of Antioch, in his “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans” writes: See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.
Bishops were also successors of the apostles in that the functions they performed (preaching, governing and ordaining) were the same as the Apostles had performed.
Tertullian, Irenaeus and others (late 2nd century) introduce explicitly the idea of the bishop’s succession in office as a guarantee of authenticity, since it could be traced back to the apostles. Irenaeus writes at length on this in his “Against Heretics”; for example: It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times.
‘Let them produce the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that a bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.’ Tertullian, ‘Prescription Against Heretics’, late 2nd century.
Apostolic anointing and grace were automatically transmitted from the Apostles by each generation of bishops through the laying on of hands. This virtually guarantees the continuity and faithfulness of the Church. Thus, only bishops and priests ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession can validly celebrate the sacraments.
This late 4th century development suited a time when schisms (e.g. Arianism) troubled the Church, and where there were rival bishops – even rival Popes. The ‘true’ apostolic succession had to be protected. The idea comes from 2 Timothy 1:6, where the Apostle Paul laid his hands on Timothy, by which act a gift of God was planted in him. This is the most contentious aspect of apostolic succession, and there are serious problems with it. Passages like Acts 20:17,28 show authority bestowed only over a local congregation – no apostolic authority is given over the church universal. And what are we to make of men who were apostolically commissioned but then backslid and deserted, like Demas? (2 Tim.4:10)
Even so, many a church today can produce impressive credentials, traced right back to the first Apostles, in support of their minister’s divine right to perform the sacraments (one example here).
About Trevor SaxbyI'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!
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